A Glossary of Sustainability Terms

By Ashley Ess in Thinking Sustainably

For many of us, sustainability has developed from a distant concept into a vast system of everyday practices, advocacy work, and information that plays a significant role in our daily lives and decisions. But this eco-lexicon is filled with so many terms, phrases, and acronyms that it's easy to lose track of what means what.

Everyone should have a basic understanding of sustainability terms to make conversations more accessible and meaningful and to reduce the influence of greenwashing (when companies convey misleading information about their products to entice consumers). Start with this sustainability glossary to dispel any confusion and set yourself on the path toward a deeper understanding of climate change and eco-friendly living.

Your Guide to Common Sustainability Terms

A blue bird sits on a naked tree branch.


Every living thing on earth—from bacteria to entire plant and animal ecosystems—is an element of biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth. Unfortunately, the biodiversity of some ecosystems is at risk as many species face extinction or endangerment. When we work to sustain ecosystems and preserve biodiversity, we help ensure many species' survival—including our own.

Carbon Footprint

A carbon footprint refers to the amount of carbon emissions individuals, organizations, corporations, and governments produce. You, your school or workplace, and the country you live in all have their own carbon footprints based on how much carbon they produce. When carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, it traps heat, resulting in skewed weather patterns and blazing temperatures.

Climatarian Diet

A climatarian diet is a thoughtful, eco-conscious approach to eating that takes the environmental impact of food production and distribution into account. Since livestock contributes significantly to global food system emissions, it often prioritizes plant-based foods. People who follow a climatarian diet may also consider packaging, the distance their food travels, and the resources used to produce food, such as water and energy.

Climate Hacking

Climate hacking refers to using innovative technology to develop and promote sustainable solutions to some of the world's most pressing climate challenges. Simply put, this climate crisis solution melds socially responsible hacking (or computer programming) with environmental activism.

Climate Resilience

Climate resilience is how individuals, communities, organizations, and governments plan for and cope with the effects of the climate crisis. Climate resilience means developing ways to predict extreme weather events, prevent worsening impacts, and rebuild after destructive events. Examples include creating city-wide initiatives to support solar energy, planting trees to reduce extreme heat, and investing in housing initiatives in areas prone to flooding.

Aerial view of the Amazon Forest and River


To make space for agricultural pursuits, many governments and corporations clear large areas of trees (forested land), resulting in deforestation. Deforestation tips the planet's ecological balance, damaging or destroying ecosystems. Trees also absorb carbon dioxide, so more carbon emissions remain trapped in the atmosphere as a result of deforestation.

Greenhouse Gases

Processes like industrial production and fuel burning produce gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane. These gases are referred to as "greenhouse gases" because they trap heat in Earth's atmosphere—much like the glass walls of a greenhouse. While this effect is necessary to an extent to keep the planet's climate balanced, too many greenhouse gases offset that balance, leading to destructive climate changes.

The 5 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle

No glossary of sustainability terms would be complete without the 5 Rs. This mantra encourages you to refuse items you don't need, reduce the amount of trash you create, reuse items to keep them out of landfills, repurpose items that would otherwise be thrown away, and recycle responsibly.

Now that you've covered the basics, spread the wealth! Check out these fun activities to teach kids about reducing waste and see how many sustainability terms you can work into the conversation as you go.

Image Sources: Pexels | Pexels | Unsplash

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Why It's Good

Working toward a greener planet starts with understanding common phrases and acronyms used in conversations about climate change and eco-friendly living.